One would never know it from Barack Obama’s remarks on the subject of negotiations with our enemies, but the subject of whether or not, and under what conditions, the United States should meet with the Soviet Union was addressed in the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates. Obama, of course, cites Kennedy as authority for the proposition that the president should be agreeable to meeting with America’s enemies without preconditions. Here is the instructive exchange on the subject of a summit with Moscow in the second Kennedy-Nixon debate, with the question initially posed to Nixon by then-Meet the Press moderator Lawrence Spivak:
MR. SPIVAK: Mr. Vice President, according to news dispatches Soviet Premier Khrushchev said today that Prime Minister Macmillan had assured him that there would be a summit conference next year after the presidential elections. Have you given any cause for such assurance, and do you consider it desirable or even possible that there would be a summit conference next year if Mr. Khrushchev persists in the conditions he’s laid down?
MR. NIXON: No, of course I haven’t talked to Prime Minister Macmillan. It would not be appropriate for me to do so. The President is still going to be president for the next four months and he, of course, is the only one who could commit this country in this period. As far as a summit conference is concerned, I want to make my position absolutely clear. I would be willing as president to meet with Mr. Khrushchev or any other world leader if it would serve the cause of peace. I would not be able wou- would be willing to meet with him however, unless there were preparations for that conference which would give us some reasonable certainty – some reasonable certainty – that you were going to have some success. We must not build up the hopes of the world and then dash them as was the case in Paris. There, Mr. Khrushchev came to that conference determined to break it up. He was going to break it up because he would – knew that he wasn’t going to get his way on Berlin and on the other key matters with which he was concerned at the Paris Conference. Now, if we’re going to have another summit conference, there must be negotiations at the diplomatic level – the ambassadors, the Secretaries of State, and others at that level – prior to that time, which will delineate the issues and which will prepare the way for the heads of state to meet and make some progress. Otherwise, if we find the heads of state meeting and not making progress, we will find that the cause of peace will have been hurt rather than helped. So under these circumstances, I, therefore, strongly urge and I will strongly hold, if I have the opportunity to urge or to hold – this position: that any summit conference would be gone into only after the most careful preparation and only after Mr. Khrushchev – after his disgraceful conduct at Paris, after his disgraceful conduct at the United Nations – gave some assurance that he really wanted to sit down and talk and to accomplish something and not just to make propaganda.
Frank McGee then asked Kennedy for his response:
MR. KENNEDY: I have no disagreement with the Vice President’s position on that. It – my view is the same as his. Let me say there is only one uh – point I would add. That before we go into the summit, before we ever meet again, I think it’s important that the United States build its strength; that it build its military strength as well as its own economic strength. If we negotiate from a position where the power balance or wave is moving away from us, it’s extremely difficult to reach a successful decision on Berlin as well as the other questions. Now the next president of the United States in his first year is going to be confronted with a very serious question on our defense of Berlin, our commitment to Berlin. It’s going to be a test of our nerve and will. It’s going to be a test of our strength. And because we’re going to move in sixty-one and two, partly because we have not maintained our strength with sufficient vigor in the last years, I believe that before we meet that crisis, that the next president of the United States should send a message to Congress asking for a revitalization of our military strength, because come spring or late in the winter we’re going to be face to face with the most serious Berlin crisis since l949 or fifty. On the question of the summit, I agree with the position of Mr. Nixon. I would not meet Mr. Khrushchev unless there were some agreements at the secondary level – foreign ministers or ambassadors – which would indicate that the meeting would have some hope of success, or a useful exchange of ideas.
In the event, the June 1961 Vienna summit proved to be a disaster for the United States, but what a stark contrast Kennedy’s approach to the issue provides to Obama’s.
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